Standing at the gaping maw of a dry and desolate wasteland, I pause teetering between past and present. Behind me, the lush verdant landscape perfumed with breezes of cedar and pine, and the soft focus of salty sea air and misty fog. Where my soul was once nourished by the gentle sustenance of dear ones, beloved kith and kin, and my heart was light and carefree as an indolent butterfly in fragrant field of wildflower. A dread now set upon me of knowing what a fool I was to ever leave such a splendor and that awareness set a tonnage upon my feet so that I was weighted immobile in my sullen and dreary reminiscence.
My companion touched me gently on the shoulder bringing me back to the task before us. I tore myself from that cherished landscape, the way one tears oneself from a warm and comfortable bed to face the cold light of dawn. Now I saw the blinding glare of a hot and caustic sun scorching a withered and barren terrain scattered with stones pale and dead like the bones of pre-historic beasts.
“I am weary,” I say to my companion.
He smiles indulgently, and allows me rest in the shade of a withered cottonwood tree. The parched, noxious air smelled of wet dog. We shared a less than refreshing drink from a too-warm canteen.
Cruel and unforgivable it was to have caved into the circumstance that brought us here, proffering a blind trust in the unforeseen misrepresentations. Yet, knowing full well that little choice was in the offing.
“It feels as if we’ve been abandoned in hell’s hottest half acre,” I bemoan.
A momentary hope flares up within me as a dying fire’s ember ignites a spark to fly, an unreasonable hope that we could just turn back, that my companion might allow himself to be persuaded, that we might spare ourselves the agony of this grief as if it were a bad dream. Yes, why not? Wasn’t it a thousand times more beautiful in the place we’d just left. How under appreciated it seemed to me now! Could he not see that I was more fragile than I’d thought, still clinging to my childlike awe and wonder and deserving of some small measure of happiness back in my cozy cottage, with its window box roses and lilac flower? How I longed to return and cease to play the hero and martyr! I would never complain again if I were allowed to return to that enchanted splendor.
Already, I was growing faint from the triple-digit heat.
“We’d better keep moving,” said my companion. “We’re likely to get a heat stroke if we hang around here much longer.”
He stood and offered me his hand and gave a knowing smile; there was neither contempt nor sympathy in that smile, neither harshness nor compassion. There was nothing but an understanding, nothing but a shared knowledge. His smile said: “I know you. I know your fear and how you feel, and I have by no means forgotten the failed hopes and dreams we shared.” He could reach into my soul and into every rabbity ruse of cowardice and every feigned gratuitous daring to unearth a brighter side of such rugged desolation.
For three days into this journey the near gale force winds had been blowing non-stop down from the stony mountain, whistling through the mostly abandoned dwellings that dotted the dreary landscape, scooping up sand and small pebble and pelting us with stinging bitterness. We fought against the mighty headwind like intrepid nomads. I hated him and loved him as one condemned loves and hates his executioner. More than anything else I hated and despised his stalwart leadership, his unfailing knowledge and ruthless conservatism and I hated everything in myself that rebelled against his rightness, the wish to be more like him, that unquestioningly followed him.
My companion was now several yards ahead of me and was moving deeper into the desert and toward the distant mountains that lain ahead of us. His steadfast willingness, a duty bound certainty to reach the mountain before nightfall was the fuel that propelled him. I, on the other hand, was content to linger passively, noticing a scorpion slowly winding his way across the sand, or stooping to grasp and admire a rock with dazzling flecks of gold. The wind in my face forced me to tuck my head down and to lean into the wind with my shoulder.
By the time we reached the foot of the mountain the crepuscular sunlight had faded and sunk below the horizon painting a flame work of color in the sky. In this faint light the ruddy mountain appeared somewhat less menacing but there was not a moment to spare as we traversed up a creviced ravine into the belly of the mountain to make a shelter for the night. By the time we found a shallow cave where we could fit our sleeping mats, darkness had overtaken us. My companion had the forethought to have gathered enough dry sticks and twigs to set us a small fire.
Unloading our packs it became immediately apparent to me the fundamental differences in our respective preparations. My companion’s pack was loaded with supplies essential to staving our hunger and for the unforeseen emergencies that are part and parcel of such a journey as this through an unforgiving wilderness. My own was packed with sentimental trinkets, a photo of my children, an heirloom necklace passed to me from my late grandmother, little books and paper and pen. He shared his store of crackers and dried fruit with me and we prepared for sleep.
The Milky Way winked at us through the cave opening and the quiet of the starry sky brought a sleepiness over us and we settled down speaking only what words were truly necessary. I passed the night in a restless dream filled sleep fighting off the fears of such an unfamiliar and disconsolate sojourn. I dreamed that a kaleidoscope of bright blue butterflies encircled and covered my head and lifted me into the night sky. I flew higher and higher into the sky and felt as light and carefree as a bird and I was able to see the full scope of the path behind us and before us and just as I came crashing to the ground I came awake.
I woke to the rustling sounds of my companion packing. The winds had died down in the pre-dawn hours and in its place were large cumulous clouds heavy and dark. A rumble in the distance gave a foreboding to my companion and I. As I quickly packed up my sleeping mat, the pitter pat of raindrops began to fall upon the mountain and the dusty trail.
“We need to get to higher ground,” he said flatly.
Quickly we scurried further up the ravine stumbling in our haste. Lightning split the distant sky and a clap of thunder shook the ground. Just then the dark sky cracked open and fat raindrops began to fall. Within moments the path before us was muddied and our footing was made even more irksome.
“Stop!” I shouted, so full of fear and frustration that I wondered if this was yet another dream and if it were a dream then I should wake myself with my shouts. “Stop!” I bellowed. “I cannot do this. I cannot go on.”
My companion stopped and looked at me with an all-knowing glance from his rain soaked face.
“Would you rather we turn back?” he asked, and before he had finished speaking I knew full well that I could not say the word that I so desperately longed to say. “Yes, say yes, say it,” my whole being begged of me. But logic and responsibility held me fast like a leaden weight.
“I will. I will, I will!” my companion gave retort to my silence, in his first display of emotion since beginning this journey.
Knowing how far we had come, the treacherous journey that had brought us this far and the wide abyss of time and distance behind us convinced me that to return was impossible and I said nothing and continued to take up the journey. My companion sensed my silent acquiescence and turned on his heels leaving me to follow behind.
For over an hour the rain fell in buckets and then just as suddenly as it began it ceased. Rivulets and streams flowed past us carrying the newly fallen rain down the face of the mountain. Tiny purple flowers seemed to awaken in its path. Little puddles of fresh water pooled in the hollows of the rock. We stopped to refill the canteen. Staring into the water’s reflection I could see my face. Gone was the gentle hope and carefree demeanor of a youthful countenance and replaced with the deep lines of loss and longing and dark eyes swollen wet with tears. I hardly recognized it.
Just then a hummingbird hovered directly in front of me. It seemed to extol a message of endurance in its steady humming. Levitating its iridescent body with the ease of its flight, it glistened and shone in the sunlight with a dancing metaphor of my own resignation. “I must continue. I must survive,” was the lesson I took from this holy messenger before it darted away and upward toward a tuft of desert sage wedged within the crevices of the mountain.
Now the climbing was easier and our pace quickened somewhat. A newfound brightness increased within me and the rocky path smoothed out before us. The blue sky reappeared and with it the mid-day heat. I tried to exert my will more intently as the passage became more passable. At times like this I kept pace more easily with that of my companion over long stretches. Or perhaps the heat served to slow his efforts. We continued together now in a mutuality of purpose.
Upward we climbed past Barrel Cactus and Beavertail Cactus and Crucifixion Thorn Bush. Up the steep and rocky slopes we continued arduously climbing higher and higher with parched lips and glistening, furrowed brows. Along narrow and perilous, tremulous cliffs we continued our ascent until, at last, the zenith was within view. And upon the summit there grew from out of the stony abutment a strange and lonely Desert Willow. Sturdy and squat with many strong branches it reached up unyieldingly between heaven and earth. And among the branches perched a large, black crow. With its shiny black crystal eye looking questioningly at us as though we’d crept into his domain like thieves. And we all conferred with one another in silent acknowledgment until the big black bird began to caw a frightful call. Hardest to bear was its steady gaze into the very depths of our souls. Continuing to caw, caw its harsh call that seemed mock our insignificance. And within that calling I seemed to hear it say ‘you don’t belong here’. All at once I realized the purpose of this perilous journey, the very realization of this purposeless hardship. I don’t belong here. I belong nowhere and yet everywhere. And suddenly the crow with one fluid motion lifted up from the branch and spread his wide black wings and soared heavenward, circled and then disappeared into the burnished sun. And then, just as suddenly, my companion looked into that bright sun and leapt from the summit and into the silent sky.